The Control of appearances in Renaissance Italy. What happened with freedom?

“The Control of appearances in Renaissance Italy. What happened with freedom?”

By: Yoel Benhabib

Governments had a great influence on Renaissance society by controlling and defining the way their citizens were supposed to dress according to their gender, their social status, and the relations between opposite sexes. A series of very detailed sumptuary laws were passed and enforced, who according to Diane Hughes (“Sumptuary Laws and Social Relations in Renaissance Italy”), the government put a lot of emphasis on stopping the sumptuous ornamentation that characterized society, specially the expenditure and luxurious extravagance of women. Such luxury was seen as a vice and contrary to the morals of the Church who also preached and supported governmental decisions against vanities and the expenditure of money that could have been used to strengthen the Italian economy. Although, I have to say that the merchants and businessmen were in reality the ones behind it since they looked to protect and maintain their power, because by applying these laws they were restricting the imports from outside and forcing people to only buy from them preserving this way their monopoly. In Venice for example, the Senate limited the value of wedding gifts to forty lire di grossi (each coin=504 grams of silver), and someone giving a dowry of thirty lire di grossi and upwards had to present himself to the government’s office and swear to follow the law. Dresses, ornaments, and other luxuries were also regulated according to the age of the woman and if she was single or married, in which case the value could not exceed more than seventy lire di grossi. There were also laws establishing the way men must dress indicating the type of shoes, pants and hats; but they were mainly concerned with women’s appearance, the importance of modesty in their clothes, and in relation with the opposite gender, as women were seen as the ones inducing men to sin and sensual pleasure. We appreciate on the portraits from the time that high elite women wore long sleeve dresses and certain covering on their heads as sign of piety and the way the laws dictated; although excessive covering was condemned as it happened in Venice limiting it to religious related matters.  It seemed there was some kind of preoccupation with social disorder and the local governments were trying to preserve peace on their territories and holding this way onto power. At the same time these regulations on dress code always marked the difference between the elite and the poor people since clothes were indicators of social status in society. Hughes seems to indicate that they were not really concerned with money but feared the power of women since they were the more directly affected and controlled; these were perhaps, attempts to control their money and inheritances. We must consider that men’s livelihood depended sometimes on his wife’s dowry and if they could not use their money “extravagantly” or as they pleased, then their husbands could make use of it perpetuating a form of male domination and keeping the men dominant status in society.


Author: Yoel Benhabib





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